it was her birthday and he had bought her nothing.
nikhil kadan swore under his breath. then realising he was alone, he swore again, this time the four letter word was clearly audible, it carried all his ire, it practically struck and reverberated against the square glass ashtray lying on the desk. he scrunched his brow thereafter and pursed his lips. because the problem remained. he hadn’t bought her anything and it was quite late in the evening, there was no time to rush down somewhere and get her a gift.
how could he have forgotten? maybe there was something right here in his office she might like? the furrows on his forehead deepened. but what did maya like? he realised, he hadn’t a clue. as he cogitated furiously, his eyes scanned his office looking for something he could give her, it didn’t occur to him even for a second that he may not find anything appropriate in his cluttered office tucked away in a corner of the interpol building.
the walls were covered with charts and the long white board. on his desk sat his laptop amid papers and stationery, on one side there was a table lamp, near its base lay his revolver, still loaded. the desk aside, there were heaps of files deposited on shelves; the entire notion that once you were electronically connected it would make way for a paperless office an obvious fantasy. beside, certain things just could not be filed away in computers. nikhil had come across enough hackers by now to know nothing really was safe out there, encrypted in cyberspace. good old fashioned cardboard and paper files kept in a safe close by was still the best way to keep secrets, secret.
he sighed and shook his head slightly, his spare lithe frame remained tense. it was evident there was nothing here for maya.
as her name made contact with his mind the second time, it sort of settled down and unknown to himself, his facial muscles relaxed, his eyes twinkled… maya. it had been so long.
seven whole days, in fact. seven days of a crazy whirl, wrenched away from life as usual.
nikhil’s eyes closed at last letting the weariness in. there’d been a tip off. heroin, crack, a large batch of souped up ecstasy were on their way to singapore, it was being smuggled from somewhere in borneo, most likely in a nondescript looking fishing boat. he had quit accompanying the guys on search operations, but this time round he decided to go along. he sensed he needed to. ever since the casinos had opened on the island, there had definitely been a change in the attitude of traffickers. expected. high rollers and flamboyant players were great customers, worth taking risks for. trafficking of all sorts had increased. he wanted to see things for himself.
and so it had been a week of huddling in crammed boats and kelongs, eating whatever was handy, barely sleeping. they had got the fellow. he was not in a fishing boat, the tip off was a smokescreen. also expected. a long flashy highly visible yacht instead carried the contraband. a group of rich kids, from indonesia, malaysia, the us, and singapore were on board. they had no idea of course what a good friend of theirs had packed in his suitcase.
nikhil sniggered, a corner of his finely chiseled lips lifting. perhaps having too much money made you stupid. “stoopid!” he muttered under his breath. then his eyes grew gentle almost. maya always laughed when he said that. “stew-pid!” she’d say correcting him. her large hazel irises would glint, she knew he’d repeat the word his way. nikhil began to smile, his dark brown eyes sparkling, growing darker, the tension starting to ease. “left over delhi accent lah” she called it, he’d moved to singapore with his parents when he was nine, there were a few words maybe he had carried from his early years, who knew. maya though was absolutely sure. how smug she looked when she said that. especially when she added that “lah”, the singapore touch.
he sat on the leather upholstered chair and rested his head against the back. he wished he could call her right now and say, “baby, come over…”
he had got back only a couple of hours before; he’d rushed home, changed, there had been no time to shave, just a quick shower, his boss wanted some papers and he had to go to maya’s birthday party. he hated parties.
of course, his suit was not ironed and his white linen shirt had wrinkles. well, at least it was clean, christina had come in while he was away and attended to the clothes. bless christina, his weekly cleaning lady. she disliked ironing but she never forgot to cook some food for her forgetful single boss, she also never missed a chance to lecture him on the harmful effects of cup noodles and oily hawker food. cooking was not part of christina’s duties, she pretended ironing wasn’t.
he’d driven over to the office to pick up the papers, he’d drop them off on the way to maya’s… that’s when it had hit him. maya’s birthday. gift?
nikhil grimaced. there was nothing he could do. unless 7-11 had something maya would love to have. what would maya really love to have though? he knew she liked her second toe to be held and playfully yanked. she sighed when he stroked the soles of her feet. he had noticed she’d suddenly stop talking when he kissed her lightly on her ears or pressed his lips to the back of her stunning long neck. she loved to talk. even when she was silent, something about her always spoke. or so it seemed to him.
she also liked to sit on his lap and watch extremely bad films. well, naturally she was convinced they were wonderful movies, and there really was no point in arguing with her. he slept through them, his arms around her, her weight on him feeling comfortable. and if his hands strayed a bit, say to her breast or navel or anywhere that he liked to touch her, she instantly slapped them off and concentrated on the screen, munching her way through mounds of popcorn as things got rough or tense in the story. when she was nervous, she had to eat. her mouth was always salty after a film.
nikhil remembered the first time he’d seen her. sharp black suit, smooth straight dark brown hair, ivory skin, red lipstick, grey (or was it green) eyes… and of course long pointed heels. slim and slightly, no markedly, haughty. she’d come to the police station to report a stolen blackberry. he was there on some work, she’d thought he was the officer on duty and demanded her f.i.r. be noted down. he’d smiled laconically at her peremptory tone and left the room. another overpaid, pampered expat, he’d thought. he was right about the expat, possibly even the overpaid. maya was a banker, currently in mergers and acquisitions, and had moved from india about a month ago with a huge bank.
he’d seen her next on the road looking completely hassled, holding a tiny dog by its leash. she was in track suit and fancy runners, hair knotted up. she had looked vulnerable. he had walked up and asked if everything was alright. she had recognised him an instant later, and glared.
she looked gorgeous when she was angry.
she had found the dog wandering about on the road and was determined to find the owner. she hadn’t cared she was getting late for work, twisty had to be taken home. twisty? he’d been confounded.
who was that?
she’d given the little mutt a name for the time being, she’d said. and looking at the furry creature scampering along after her he’d felt the dog liked the name. they’d found the owner, twisty had escaped slipping under the gate of their semi-detached house. her name was cottontail.
maya had hissed darkly under her breath later, “who names a dog after a rabbit! twisty is much better! huh!”
that’s when he’d felt he had to get to know her. in fact, he recalled, he’d wanted to bend down and kiss her. she had looked so terribly offended by that name. was there indeed a rabbit called cottontail?
she had agreed to have a coffee with him at the coffee bean nearby. they’d been there for a very long time. she had asked for tea and hadn’t liked it at all. no one in singapore knew what darjeeling tea was, she had declared with a toss of her head. he had wanted to laugh and hold her hand.
trained to notice a zillion things at once, he’d taken note of the fact that this was most unnatural. he was hardly the sort of man who thought of holding hands with a woman. at thirty two, having spent almost ten years as an investigator in narcotics and seeing the seamy side of life, the ugliness, the sheer violence in it… its gritty, real, malevolent feel never too far from him, he had almost entirely lost the space for women in his life. yes, once in a way he met someone, there was a bit of flirting, a couple of nights together… the usual thing. then it was over. he couldn’t even recall when it was that he’d been with anyone last. his mother fretted that he’d remain a bachelor, he let her be. he knew in his sort of life, some things were simply not viable: permanence, family, commitments that required you to be around, save money… stay alive.
and yet, he hadn’t stopped himself from sitting with her and talking. he was not fond of talking. turned out, she was. she approved of the carrot cake and the all day breakfast. later she conceded while the tea was not what it should be, the caramel ice blended was delicious. she told him she had been working for nearly four years now and had studied physics in college, then management. he had tried to keep a straight face, he found management and its schools, well, phoney. his friends in the corporate world said he was biased. he was possibly.
she blurted out between sips of caramel ice blended, “my parents divorced when i was ten… ma struggled… ” she paused for a second as if looking for words, trying to curb emotion, “anyway, now it’s all fine. i am working, my sister graduates in a couple of years… so!” and she smiled cheerily. he had found it hard not to let his feelings show… not pampered. he had not been right.
they had dinner together the next evening, and when he went to drop her home, she asked him if he’d like to come up. he hadn’t been able to hold back any longer. he’d leaned over and kissed her then.
her lips had a gentleness that made him linger, her hand landed on his cheek with a light fluttering touch. he had felt an insane desire to get out of the car, go around to her side and carry her upstairs.
he had gone up with her that night… they had both seemed a bit awkward as the apartment door closed, as if they knew this was some kind of routine adhered to as and when needed. when she’d broken off a kiss and said in a husky whisper, “i’ll be right back,” he had almost winced.
he had stopped her and said, he had to leave, there was work at the docks, and walked away.
nikhil got up from the chair, put a bunch of files and the revolver away in the safe in an adjoining room at the back. he switched off the lights and strode out of his office. he was already late. maya would be waiting.
he had to go away for almost two weeks after that night in her apartment. when he returned, the first phone call he made was to maya. that night at her apartment, they did not stop or wonder. nor could they wait. she had giggled later and said, “good, i went and splurged on a persian rug with my first salary…”
he could still feel her rubbing her cheek on his chest and doodling on his stomach. her voice had so many notes and cadences. he had wanted to badly know if there was anybody else in her life. so young and beautiful, surely, he couldn’t be the only one. then he had said to himself… it didn’t matter, as long as she was there with him when they could be together.
that was six months ago. there hadn’t been anyone else. he had sensed they were getting involved beyond a point… he missed her like hell when he was away. and so it had been important to make it clear to her that this was as far as he could take any relationship. no place in his life for anything more. in fact, she ought to really start looking around, maybe there was a handsome corporate type somewhere, closer to her age, with whom she could, you know-
maya had stuffed an egg tart in his mouth and said, “yeah, no need to tell me, ah pek, i have already started looking for someone i can book an hdb with.”
standing joke between them. she always marveled at how all her singaporean colleagues talked about an hdb flat when they got serious about their boyfriends. he’d explained to her the practice here of young couples applying for subsidized government housing, those hdb flats, way before their wedding because it took a fairly long while, even years, to actually get one. therefore, that became a major part of the plans regarding nuptials.
peals of laughter had followed, “at least, it’s better than, have your parents got the dowry my parents want for the wedding?” she had chortled. he had heard a funny desperation in her voice. she’d said later, her father had married a couple of years after deserting her mother with two young children, the grapevine had reported he’d been given an apartment and cash worth $20,000 in dowry.
he had lain next to her wide awake that night, disturbed, distressed. she called him old man… uncle, ah pek, at times, especially when she wanted him to shut up.
his mother had liked maya the moment she’d met her. “indian!” she had beamed. she had visited him unexpectedly that day and when she saw his guest she had instantly fired a salvo of questions. it included, where were you born? how many brothers and sisters do you have? when is your birthday? are you married? what is your caste?
nikhil had taken his mother by the shoulder at that and swiftly turned her around. he’d propelled her to the kitchen and said he was very hungry, would she make him one of her magic omelettes. he could see maya pursing her lips in the sitting room, trying not to laugh. how her eyes glittered.
he swallowed hard. his adam’s apple moved up, then settled back. he hadn’t even shaved, he thought again. he was late. no time. and hell, no gift. he turned on the radio, looked like there had been an accident somewhere, the traffic was thick and slow along orchard.
he’d called her before leaving, “baby, i don’t know when i’ll be back, i’ll try to make it to your birthday party, but…”
“don’t worry, catch those baddies, okay? and i’ll catch a young corporate sort, you know…?” she was trying to sound cool.
“i… ” he’d searched for his thoughts, what had he he wanted to say? “see you soon, sweetheart…” he’d wanted to tell her he’d throttle the young corporate type.
maya… didn’t it mean illusion? wasn’t it intoxication? perhaps it was contraband.
perhaps he should stay away.
he pressed his foot down on the accelerator. the traffic had begun to ease. at the posh condominium she lived in, the guard as usual made him wait at the gate. not the right kind of car… a rugged toyota suv, it deserved that slow walk over by the younger watchman, the peering in, the ascertaining that he had the right unit number. he wished he’d carried his revolver.
nikhil parked the car in the visitors lot and started walking toward the elevator.
he realised he was in fact running…
the elevator doors opened, a whole posse of human beings poured out. obviously they were together, coming from some sort of party, the girls in the tiniest skirts, the guys with gelled hair and that evening look.
was he that late? was the party already over? he rushed into the elevator and hit 13. why couldn’t she live on a lower floor… closer? why couldn’t she live…
he noticed the silence as he stepped out of lift. was he on the right floor? he reached up to ring the doorbell, a little apprehensive.
the door opened seconds later. maya stood before him.
her eyes… that’s what he always noticed first. they were dazzlingly silver grey tonight. she was smiling, the widest smile he’d ever seen he thought. no red lipstick. she wore a long flowing thing in shades of green. he had no idea what it was called but it swirled and floated about her, almost telling him to…
he reached out and pulled her into his arms and started kissing her.
there was no time for niceties and small talk. he wasn’t good at such things anyway. and as for her guests, well, he really didn’t care.
he had to feel her against him, hold her, she’d wiggle, she’d hold his face in her palms, she’d at one point start kissing him back with more force, she’d move her head, bite his lips, take charge of the kiss, stroke the back of his neck, grab a handful of his hair and moan… he wanted all of that right now. it had been so long.
he felt her hand move down over his chest under his jacket, fluttering gentle fingers, they were at his waist… she was beginning to undo his belt.
nikhil went still.
what was maya doing? he noticed they were inside her apartment… he hadn’t even felt they’d come in… and where were the others?
he lifted his head and caught hold of her hand.
“didn’t you say you were having a birthday party?” he knew that was not what you said to her when you met her after a week and that too on her birthday.
“i had it… last night…” she replied looking at him solemnly. he could feel laughter behind her voice, her eyes. what was going on? why…?
“whaaat!” nikhil was aghast, “it was your birthday yesterday?!” how could it be, he was sure she had said friday, and today was fri…
“well, it started last night, 12 midnight…” she was grinning now, enjoying his confusion.
nikhil shook his head and frowned, what was this game? he was beginning to feel disoriented. contraband, the thought went through his head again. illusion.
maya stepped forward and put her arms around him, “you don’t like parties, do you? so i had mine last evening… just wanted to hang with you today… won’t you wish me, nikhil?”
nikhil. the way she said his name right at the end, setting it a little apart from everything else she’d said, a note in it that made it much more than a name, six simple letters, two syllables. like she owned them, she made them come alive.
nikhil blinked. not from borneo, it was all already here, in singapore…
maya leaned back and stuck her right hand out. “my gift?” she asked, left eyebrow arched, a little haughtiness about her.
nikhil felt something hit his solar plexus. he did have a gift for her, but would she like it? hell, he had no idea what she liked.
he caught hold of her hand and got ready to say it in a light, funny vein…
but he found himself drawing away, and looking straight into her eyes he said, solemnly, no laughter anywhere, “i may never make more money than you, i will not be around very often, for days… even months, i can’t promise much, not even that i’ll stay alive, i know i am much older than you, and you know… what the heck, maya…” suddenly his voice rose, a strain of frustration, ire… desperation, “can’t you guess what i am trying to say… will you have me…” he had no idea but his eyes had gone deep velvet brown, “maya, will you marry me?”
he was gripping her hand so tightly, her fingertips had gone crimson red. she lifted her other hand and stroked his unshaven cheek, she made a little face as her fingers touched his scruffy beard, then she let her hand roam over to his forehead and traced the line of his sharp pronounced widow’s peak. her face was raised, he could see her lips glistening, a strange concentration in her eyes.
he realised he was barely breathing.
there are some moments in our lives that get etched in the mind, the heart, perhaps even the skin, forever.
suddenly she broke into a nutty grin and said, “stoopid!”
i wrote this story with two actors in mind, barun sobti and sanaya irani. i can almost see them being nikhil and maya. i know these two actors are potent together, in fact they are unforgettable. i would like to thank my friend jessica for her help with the “ah pek” and the hdb details. ah pek is hokkien for uncle… often refers to men over fifty, a stereotype there of an older person who hangs about doing nothing much, slightly negative in connotation, yet said right with a little lightness, can say other things. “kelong” is a malay word meaning an offshore platform which is usually made of wood, it’s mainly used for fishing. i hope you enjoyed the love story set in singapore; the interpol building, new and blue and white and rather prominent is close to my place, i decided nikhil works there, wondering which condo is it where maya lives. do leave a comment, i look forward to your thoughts. hope the romance was happy, silly, good. thanks for reading.